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    Chapter Eight: Sugar and Spice


    Sinajfae

    Chapter Eight
    Sugar and Spice

    Waking from a foggy sleep, Madeline sensed a dark silhouette looming over her, strange hands fidgeting around her neck. Instinctively, she attempted to jerk her arms upward to break the uninvited contact, but the pull of thick straps around her wrists restrained her from doing so. Forcing her eyes into focus, she saw Geon Woo hovering over her, his fingers on the silver chain of her mother’s opal necklace as he tried frantically to remove it. His breathing was labored, desperate, and left an uncomfortable, sour heat on the top of her head as he looked down at her.

    “Your… your necklace must have a hidden clasp,” he stammered, looking feverish as he took a step back. “But no matter. I wonder what it will add to your color?”

    My color? Madeline thought, puzzled and still feeling disconnected from her surroundings. She had no idea where she was or how far away from the cruise ship she'd been taken.

    Shaking the haze from her head, she became aware of red ringlets bouncing against her cheeks. Shiny and curly against the side of her face, they had been pristinely styled and almost looked too glossy to be real. And she was no longer wearing her comfortable sundress, but rather a baby-blue and white lolita dress. The short sleeves were large and puffy, with uncomfortable elastic clinging to her upper arms. Quaint white satin bows circled the hem of the bell-shaped skirt, which rested atop a pair of matching thigh-high cotton stockings, and a snowy ribbon laced delicately up from her waist to her neckline. She felt like a red-headed Alice who had been kidnapped from Wonderland and was now the prisoner of a monster that existed in the real world.

    Once again, she struggled against the leather straps securing her wrists to an elegant turn-of-the-century armchair, but they wouldn’t budge. Madeline wasn’t able to see her ankles but guessed they were fastened to the front legs of the chair in much the same fashion, judging by the restraints she felt through the stockings. Her feet felt like they were in shoes, but nothing she was familiar wearing. She wiggled her toes and flexed her arches trying to get an idea of what they were. They felt like loafers of some sort, definitely flats. 

    Shifting her weight in the armchair, she tried to feel whether or not the band-aid with the tracking chip still adhered to her skin. It bothered her that she couldn’t tell, because it was the only thing tying her to a possible rescue. She hoped Geon Woo had dressed her here and not somewhere along the way, that way the tracker would be somewhere close. She trusted Levi would find her if he could, but that was conditional on whether or not the tracker had made it this far. Glancing around, Madeline hoped to see some sign of her belongings nearby but was quickly distracted by her surroundings.

    The room around her looked literally like a doll house. 

    Behind Geon Woo, who stood only a few feet away, was a fuschia-colored, Victorian loveseat flanked by matching chairs. She guessed the one she’d been tied to was also part of that set. The walls were lemony-yellow with creamy white daisies painted on them, and there was a large window veiled by vintage lace curtains on which the daisy motif continued. The window glass was frosted, so she couldn’t determine what time of day it was. But there was something off about the lighting coming through the window. It was not coming from above but from a horizontal angle. And it was oddly dark; not nighttime or daytime, but possibly a very cloudy day. Various knickknacks occupied the small shelves that lined the walls; such as teapots, saucers and small clocks - all items you would find in a to-scale dollhouse, but, as with the window lighting, something about them was suspect.  

    Suddenly, Madeline realized the dimensions of the room itself were wrong. The ceiling was too low. So low in fact, that the frame of the room’s only door was flush against it.

    She directed her attention once again at Geon Woo, who looked nothing like the sauve, put-together gentleman she had interacted with on the cruise. He was still wearing the same clothing he’d picked her up in for their impromptu date, only it was now wrinkled and disheveled, a perfect match to his current state of mind. Instead of the warm and reserved expression she’d come to expect from him, his lower lip now spasmed in one corner and his eyes darted all over her like a swarm of gnats.

    “What are you doing?” she asked, successfully keeping her voice calm as she continued to strain against the straps. “I don’t understand, is everything alright?”

    She knew she had to keep control of the situation. Levi had drilled into her head how important it was for her to dictate the flow of the game in any situation. Geon Woo had lost his calm and polite exterior and now wore the guise of a twitchy and sweaty madman. It was imperative she maintain control.

    “This room is really cute,” Madeline managed with a smile, “But I don’t see why you need to keep me tied up like this. I would never hurt you. Why don’t we have tea instead, or I could try on another dress for you. You have other dresses don’t you?”

    He seemed confused by her attitude for a moment, then sat down on the pink loveseat across from her armchair, his body tense.

    “We could do that,” he said, staring down at the floor in between them. “But I can’t wait to play. I just can’t.”

    “Play what, Geon Woo?” Madeline asked, trying to keep him talking.

    When he looked up at her, his gaze now felt like hundreds of spiders crawling over her skin. 

    “Play with my doll,” he answered. “I like dress-up and tea, but I just can’t wait to touch. Soo-jin was so much fun. We played for a really long time, but then she broke. I would never throw away a beautiful doll, so I made her into something even more beautiful.”

    “Soo-jin… was she your doll before me?” Madeline asked, remembering the daughter’s name from the mission docket, and keeping an even voice devoid of the fear that was growing inside. “I bet she was very pretty. What color dress was her favorite?”

    “Soo-jin’s favorite color was pink,” Geon-Woo answered, though his eyes would not stop their nervous, abrasive journey over Madeline’s dress. “I had her the longest. She’s more beautiful than the others now.”

    Madeline didn’t like what the word ‘broke’ implicated. She didn’t want to ask about that, trying not to trigger whatever thin thread of sanity he was still clinging to. If she could just get out of her restraints, she was sure she could take him out and get away. 

    “Did Soo-jin ever touch you?” Madeline asked, trying a different route. “Holding a doll can be comforting. Dolls are full of so much love, but I can’t show you love when these ugly straps are touching me. Don’t you think they’re ugly? Everything in this room is so lovely, except for them.”

    Geon Woo stood abruptly, but Madeline refused to react to the surprise and kept up the act.

    “I didn’t touch Soo-jin until she was broken,” he admitted. “You don’t touch a doll that way. It would make them impure. But when they are broken, it doesn’t matter. You can touch them all you want. And do things.”

    Walking over to one of the shelves nearby, he turned his back to Madeline and reached for something. 

    “But I want to touch you that way,” he continued, slowly turning back around, staring at something shiny in his right hand. “I can’t wait. You have to be broken, so I can touch you like I want to.”

    Madeline noticed a pair of steel scissors in his hand. The wallpaper reflected on the blades making the daisies look like a watercolor nightmare of melting yellows and whites.

    “But didn’t you touch me when you dressed me in this pretty dress?” Madeline asked, still managing to suppress her nerves. “I wasn’t broken then. I can pretend to be asleep again if you want to touch me.”

    “I didn’t dress you,” he said quietly, moving closer to Madeline’s armchair.

    “Who dressed me then?” Madeline asked. “Can I see them so I can thank them for the lovely dress?”

    Eomma and appa did.”

    Eomma and appa. Eomma and appa Madeline repeated the words in her head trying to remember the minor amount of Korean she had studied. Mother and father?!

    “So beautiful,” he continued. “I’m going to look at you now. Before you break. And then I will make you more beautiful.”

    Kneeling at the foot of the armchair, Geon Woo took the scissors and began to cut away at the ruffled hem that rested right above Madeline’s knees near the top of the stockings. While holding the fabric with one hand, he started on her right side, making the first cut right above her knee and moving straight up to her waist. Beneath the dress, Madeline saw an unsoiled petticoat. He was being meticulous. He had a pattern.

    “Why are you doing this?”

    “Because I want to keep you forever to myself,” Geon Woo replied. “Once dolls are mine, they are always mine. I love them until they break, and still, I keep them. Forever.”

    He continued cutting more of the dress off, trimming it higher and higher in the front until the only thing covering Madeline from the waist down was the petticoat. With a quick and precise motion that startled her, he cut the blue dress from her navel to her neckline, shearing the white ribbon in the process and exposing a camisole underneath. It was apparent there was nothing else beneath the camisole, so any more cutting would have her skin bared and likely near the end of his process. She was running out of time.

    “H.. how many dolls do you have in your collection?” She asked, voice now quivering. She had to stay calm. Levi would get here. She knew he would. “Will I get to see them?”

    “You’ve already seen Soo-Jin,” Geon Woo continued with his head down, beginning to cut away at the petticoat now. Teasing himself, he cut slowly from the left side to the center of her waist, fully exposing her pubic area. Madeline’s fear was realized at that time. The band-aid which held the tracker was gone. She heard Geon Woo groan as he took some time staring at the pink of her womanhood, his heavy breathing making her ill.  

    “She turned into such a pretty shade of blue. I wonder what shade of blue you’ll become?” he mumbled, eyes not leaving the curl of auburn between her thighs.

    “How soon will it be until you make me a shade of blue?” Madeline asked nervously, swallowing the lump that caught in her throat. 

    “I’ll do things first. For a while.”

    That was the only response she got before he placed the point of one of the scissor blades against her abdomen, letting the cold steel trace a path straight up toward her camisole. 

    There was a sudden pounding against one of the walls that shook the entire room.

    It caused the daisy wallpaper to ripple as if it was nothing more than tissue. The commotion startled both Madeline and Geon Woo, and seconds later the whole wall to her right crashed outward, slamming down loudly in a billow of dirt and debris. With one flimsy wall down, the other three no longer had the needed support and collapsed as well, sounding like gunshots as their wooden beams slammed down to the concrete. A handful of police officers shouting commands in a foreign language rushed in, their weapons drawn and pointed at Geon Woo. Panicking, he dropped the scissors, leaving them to clatter loudly on the floor as he raised his hands in the air. 

    Someone was speaking to the officers, and although she couldn’t recognize the language, it was Levi’s voice. There was no mistaking it. Relief washed over her, and she allowed herself to slump in the armchair.

    “And I’m sure if you examine this workshop and the adjoining property,” Levi continued in Croatian, “And look into his personal records over the past 12 months, you’ll be able to tie him to at least one murder.”

    Stepping past the officers who were in the midst of handcuffing Geon Woo while radioing their superiors, Leviticus carried a police blanket in his arms. He was dressed as a classic spy, wearing thin, tight black pants and a matching short-sleeved shirt. He approached her with an analytical expression, unfolding the blanket and covering the front of her body from curious eyes as he systematically gave her a quick once-over to make sure she was in no immediate danger. Kneeling down, he began to unfasten her restraints. As the officers continued to secure Geon Woo for transportation, Levi purposely positioned himself so that the man would never be able to lay eyes on Madeline ever again. 

    “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” Levi asked as he unstrapped her right wrist and moved on to the left one. “I had to make sure there would be enough evidence to prosecute him without needing any testimony from us, and that I reported it to the right jurisdiction. I lost your signal when you got here, but by that time I was pretty sure where you were. He ended up taking you all the way to Croatia.”

    “Croatia?!” Madeline choked. She honestly thought she was still on Malta somewhere. The distance she was taken while unconscious was staggering. If Levi hadn’t shown up when he did…

    “How are you holding up?” he asked, gently opening her eyes wide with his fingertips, checking her pupils for any lingering effect of whatever drug Geon Woo had used on her. Satisfied she was no longer in any danger, he accessed the rest of her visible body for any bruises or cuts. “I’ll need to check you more thoroughly after we’re out of here.”

    “I’m a little shaken, but I’ll be okay,” she whispered, thankfully. “Were we successful?”

    “In a manner of speaking,” Levi answered vaguely, though there was a hint of anger in his voice. After unstrapping her left wrist, he made quick work of removing the straps that bound her ankles. “I’ll debrief you in the car.”

    Despite finding her before anything unsavory happened, Levi was beyond irritated with the undisclosed facts of the mission. He was confident Syriem knew the details surrounding the blue diamond but left it out of the docket because Levi would not have considered the job had he known what this was really all about. And the fact that it put Madeline in real danger...

    He forced back a grimace and then spoke.

    “We need to bow out of this quietly.”

    Nodding, Madeline rose, turning her head to take in her surroundings. The dollhouse had turned out to be nothing more than four framed panels of drywall propped up by wooden beams. The small makeshift room, the epitome of dainty cuteness, was in the middle of a nightmare of a workshop. The walls were brown and peeling, the concrete floor cracked and dirty, and there was a metal chair bolted to the floor which had thicker leather restraints similar to the ones used to hold her to the armchair, only these were stained with what appeared to be blood.

    Seeing her startled expression, Levi wrapped the blanket tighter around her and placing a hand on her back, guided her away from the increasing commotion of the area. As they snuck out behind the men securing the scene, one of the officers raised a hand as if trying to get Levi’s attention, but he ignored it and continued walking briskly onward. Outside of the large stucco and red-tiled villa, he led Madeline to where his rental car was parked. Thankful to feel the fresh air and a warm breeze, Madeline guessed by the color of the sky and the position of the sun that it was late in the afternoon. Levi rounded to the passenger’s side of the Audi A4 with Madeline, helping her into the front bucket seat. Once she was buckled in, Levi wasted no time taking the driver’s seat, starting the engine, and driving off. 

    “I brought one of the carry-ons with me. The other suitcases will be shipped back home,” Levi revealed, eyes on the road. “There’s a change of clothes in there for you, and your passport. It’s going to be about an hour drive to the airport.”

    Taking a moment to carefully construct his words, Levi wanted to praise her for taking such initiative but also scold her for letting herself get into such a precarious position.

    That was pretty ballsy leaving the ship with him. I’m impressed. But what did you have planned if I didn’t show up?”

    “You would have shown,” Madeline said bluntly.

    Looking in the backseat, she noticed the purse she’d brought to shore in Malta was sitting on the backseat next to the carry-on luggage, as well as the sandals she had worn.

    “How did you get my stuff?” she asked, surprised to see what she figured was forever lost.

    “It was in a plastic garbage bag against the backside of the house near a burn barrel. My best guess is that he was going to destroy it at some point.”

    “And the necklace? Were you able to get it?”

    Levi was quiet for a few moments, although the air around him was so thick with rage it was nearly palatable.

    “I had to leave it with the police as evidence,” he finally said.

    “As evidence? I don’t understand.”

    Madeline reclined the seat back as far as it would go, then unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over the back so she could reach the small suitcase behind her. Unzipping it, she pulled out a simple black and peach polka-dotted sundress. Sitting back down in the seat, Madeline raised the seatback to its normal position and slipped the dress up over her head. Modestly wiggling out of what was left of the petticoat and camisole Geon Woo’s parents had dressed her in, she tossed them both in the back with the police blanket and buckled her seatbelt. 

    “The blue stone,” Levi began again, paying little attention to her slipping out of the white cotton stockings next to him, “It classified as a diamond, but it wasn’t a mined diamond, it was created from human ashes. The girls Geon Woo killed.”

    “Wait… what?

    Madeline was dumbstruck. The diamond was made from dead girls?

     “There’s a process that turns ashes to diamonds. The chemicals in the human body normally cause the diamonds to come out in various shades of blue. That diamond, and the others I found with it...” 

    He had to pause for a moment, controlling his anger, so it didn’t reflect in his voice before he allowed himself to speak again. 

    “He was killing girls and turning their dead bodies into memorial diamonds.”

    That explained why Geon Woo kept going on about what color I was going to be, Madeline thought in silence. He was talking about her diamond. It makes sense now. Only it wasn’t just him.

    “There’s more than just Geon Woo involved. He told me his parents dressed me,” Madeline revealed, pointing her thumb to what was left of the dress in the backseat. “At least I think they did. He said eomma and appa.

    Levi let out a growl and floored the rental car as he shifted gears, the engine roaring in response.

    Madeline’s head began to spin. She understood why Levi was so angry. It meant the family they were working for knew what was going on. They wanted the necklace back out of greed because if they gave a damn about their daughter, this mission would have had a completely different objective.

    “Why weren’t we told?” was all she could muster in frustration.

    “I’m not sure,” Levi said switching gears as they got on the D8, “But I decided to do what I thought was right, despite the job. If we had gone through with it, that bastard would continue to murder. I’m not okay with that.”

    Madeline could tell Levi was boiling inside. It was obvious he didn’t take a liking to the lack of full disclosure, and in this case, it was a major piece of information that would have affected his decision to accept the job. 

    “Change of plans. We’re going to stay the night nearby,” he finally said after a few more moments of only the roar of the engine. “I need to take care of this.”

    “What do you plan on doing?”

    “What would you do?” he posed a question right back at her.

    Looking out the window at the Mediterranean coastline, Madeline considered all the facts. Geon Woo was a murderer, and his parents were accomplices. The local authorities were investigating Geon Woo for kidnapping based on what they witnessed today. Levi gave them the necklace and they should be able to find some DNA from Soo-Jin at the scene. She wasn’t sure how much hard evidence would be needed to lock him up, but there was nothing on the parents, who were just as guilty for enabling their son.  

    “I would make sure they were all found guilty, and jailed indefinitely. Or worse.”

    Levi said nothing, but continued to speed down the D8. He stopped at the very next hotel, which consisted of a pair of bright white, eight-story-tall, concrete buildings standing against the darkening blue sky. Weaving down the tree-lined drive, Levi parked and then grabbed the carry-on from the backseat. After alarming the rental, he headed to the lobby with a tired Madeline on his arm. Speaking the native language, he charmingly requested a room, causing the female employee at the front desk to swoon over his every word. After the blatant flirting, they were accommodated on the sixth floor with a sparkling view of the sun setting in the Adriatic Ocean. 

    The room itself felt dated but had two comfortable double beds and all the furnishings usually found, including a small fridge. Setting the small suitcase down on the luggage valet, Levi walked over to the balcony doors and opened them wide, letting the ocean breeze and departing sunlight into the room. Madeline sat on the bed closest to him, going over the contents of her purse to make sure nothing was missing. It was all intact. Sighing, she stretched her arms over her head and let herself fall flat on her back on the bed. The warm air was heavenly against her skin. 

    Levi stepped out onto the balcony and leisurely stripped his black t-shirt up and over his head, tossing it on the bed next to Madeline. Tilting his head back, he ran both his hands slowly through his silky black hair before turning around to face her. 

    She could not take her eyes off his body. The cut of his muscles, his perfectly tanned skin, the way his hips swayed seductively as he slowly approached the bed she laid on.

    “What are you doing?” she stammered, feeling her pulse quicken as his fingers worked at the button of his pants, then lowering the zipper down enough to reveal the waistband of his boxer-briefs. 

    He didn’t say a word as he teasingly crawled onto the bed on all fours. 

    “I need to make sure you’re not hurt,” he purred. “Do you remember anything right before you passed out?”

    Moving into a sitting position right next to her, Levi leaned forward and began to lift her eyelids again, checking her pupils. All she could focus on were his perfectly shaped, slightly-parted, full lips as he studied her, remembering how he tasted when they kissed. 

    She cursed herself. 

    She was tired, but she needed to keep her defenses up and stop acting foolish. Think, think, think....

    “He didn’t poke me with anything, and I didn’t eat or drink anything,” Madeline replied, rattling out everything that came to mind. “He said we were going to a restaurant that a friend owned in Malta. We were getting into a taxi.”

    “What kind of taxi? Marked? Did it have a partition? Were the windows rolled up or down?”

    “Um, unmarked,” Madeline continued, struggling with the temptation of Levi being so close. “Driver seemed pleasant… and yes, there was a partition. I remember I couldn’t get a good look at him because of the partition. And the windows were rolled up. Wait, that’s not true. The front windows were rolled down, but the rear windows were up.”

    “Who entered the taxi first? You or him?”

    “I did. He took a while getting in. Had a few words with the driver. I thought he was giving him directions.”

    “Ah,” Levi concluded, his fingertips slipping from her skin as he sat straight up on the bed. “Sounds like they might have had pumped some sort of gas into the backseat, then waited until you were in there inhaling it for a while before he entered. The driver was in on it. I’m guessing it’s not the first time they’ve pulled this stunt either.”

    “You make it sound so elementary,” Madeline mumbled, “Like I should have known better.”

    “That wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to determine how you let some human take you so easily, but it wasn’t easy. They had a very complicated setup. So, it wasn’t your fault.”

    Leaning back over her as she laid on the bed, Levi brought his face in slowly, purposefully parting his lips once again. He could feel her emotions rush like they had when he first took off his shirt. He licked his lips subtly, making sure she picked up on his gesture. 

    There was the reaction he was looking for.

    Drawing on her palatable desire, he kept his face inches away, making her stir uncomfortably beneath him while fed on her yearning.

    “I need a little rush,” he whispered in a low, husky voice. “I have to improvise my plans tonight, and since I’ve been hunting you down since you left the ship, I haven’t rested or eaten. I need you to accommodate me.”

    He paused for a moment, emerald green eyes capturing Madeline’s as his black hair cascaded down around his face.

    “I don’t go into anything half-cocked.”

    Her heart racing, Madeline wasn’t sure if she would have been able to resist him if he would have forced himself on her now. Common sense told her he would never do anything of the sort, but there was always that guilty longing that someday he would. 

    Levi took a few deep breaths and then chuckled softly in her ear in such a way that made her yearn for him to make skin-to-skin contact. Satisfied, he branded a platonic kiss on her forehead.

    “Ah, perfect,” he moaned, barely above a whisper. “So delicious. Arigato.”

    Then in a flash he got up, re-zipped, buttoned, and put his t-shirt back on.

    “I’m going to head back out to the crime scene,” he stated as if nothing had happened. Noticing the expression on Madeline’s face as she attempted to catch her breath, he continued with a playful grin. “Why the look of surprise? You should be used to this by now.”

    “Would you prefer that I was?” Madeline breathlessly responded as she rested her arm across her forehead, closing her eyes in an attempt to calm down. “Then I wouldn’t be nearly as tasty, would I?”

    “Point taken,” Levi responded, still smiling.

    Going to the small suitcase, he began to retrieve a small hard-shell case that looked a lot like a gentleman’s shaving kit, only inside were sharp metal utensils, some powder, a couple of tiny glass bottles with eyedropper caps, and a roll of tape. As he laid it all out on the dresser top, he went back into the suitcase and removed a pair of black pants and a matching black shirt, both sewn of extremely thin fabric. 

    “I’m going to take a quick shower and then head out. I’ll be taking the car,” he revealed. “I plan to be back before it gets too late. Did you want to wait for me, or should I get some food sent up to you now?”

    “I’ll wait for you,” Madeline said, still not looking up at him while trying to block everything that had just happened out of her mind.

    “Looks like they actually have a pizza parlor downstairs.”

    “Pizza sounds really good,” Madeline said.

    Nodding, Levi ducked into the bathroom and showered to freshen up before heading out to the Hyun villa. 

    A few minutes after he left, Madeline dragged herself out of bed and opened the door into the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, she felt like she was staring at a stranger. The makeup she was wearing was drastic and bright, a clown-like contrast to her normal, natural look. Bright red lipstick. Glistening blue shadow. The foundation was very pale compared to the tone of her skin, and it was glossy like everything else they had applied. It made her face look like it was porcelain.

    She detested it. 

    And the curls. 

    Tight red ringlets looked like a doll’s wig on her head. 

    Stripping off her sundress, she conscientiously folded it and set it on the countertop. As she slid the shower curtain away from the white tiles, Madeline turned on the faucet and adjusted the temperature, looking forward to washing everything away and getting back to feeling, and looking, like her old self. After stepping into the relaxing heat of the water, she grabbed Levi’s shampoo and began to lather out the repulsive spirals. As she massaged the suds against her scalp, she inhaled deeply. The entire shower smelled of the musky sweetness of Levi’s hair. It was only missing the familiarity of sandalwood that she’d grown accustomed to, but this was enough to help her regain some sense of cheerfulness. As she rinsed, she grabbed the bar of soap and started to vigorously wash the makeup off her face. After the first scrubbing, she dragged her fingernail gently against her lower lash. 

    There was still some of the black eyeliner there. 

    Did they fucking use a sharpie? She cursed in her mind. I mean seriously, what the fuck?

    Again Madeline lathered and lathered, concentrating around her eyes. There was a brief sting of soap as some got under her lids, but she didn’t care. She was okay with it as long as it burned the shit out of the pancake makeup.

    Another test with her fingernail and there was no more makeup around her eyes that she could detect. Sighing, she worked her body with the bar of soap until it was all frothy and clean, and then began rinsing off. Her hair, her face, her body… everything felt normal again. Madeline turned the water off and opened the shower curtain to reach for a towel. Her reflection in the mirror was comforting, back to the girl she was used to staring at for the past twenty-six years. After drying off, she slipped back into her sundress and opened the bathroom door. Checking the suitcase once more, she realized Levi had packed very light. No makeup, just her deodorant and toothbrush. Her hairbrush wasn’t even in there. Oh well, she shouldn't expect much considering the sudden departure from the ship. She took the toothbrush back into the bathroom where she'd seen a tube of toothpaste and began to brush her teeth, setting her toothbrush next to Levi’s when she was done with it. His hairbrush was there too, so she figured it would be okay to use it, but as she brought it up to her head, she noticed something odd.

    There wasn’t a single strand of his hair on it. 

    Not one piece.

    She checked the bathroom trash can. It was empty. 

    Impossible, she told herself. He’d been using the same one since the beginning of the trip, and there wasn’t any hair in it? That made no sense. 

    Running the brush through her wet hair, she detangled it slowly and carefully. When she was done, she set the hairbrush down on the counter, proud of the three or so hairs she left in the bristles. Winding her hair into a rope, Madeline wrapped it in a towel and twisted it to compress out as much of the water as she could. Draping the damp towel over the shower rod, she grabbed a fresh one and wrapped her hair up so it would dry. Leaving the bathroom, she went back to the bed closest to the open balcony and laid down once again. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself a short nap while she waited for Levi’s return.

     

     

    ------------------------------------------------------


    Just outside the main road that led to the Hyun estate, Levi rolled the rental car to a quiet stop and got out. There wasn’t a lot of cover in the area, but there were enough tall bushes to keep the majority of the car hidden from sight. He took the police blanket out of the backseat and laid it down on the dirt next to the driver’s side of the car. Crouching down, he took a deep breath and began to pull his consciousness inward.  

    The first sensation, as always, was the feeling of retreating into the central part of his body as if his physical form was nothing more than a shell, and he was condensing his very being to a single point at the back of his skull. Starting from the tips of his toes and fingers, Levi felt the tingle of numbness. It began as a slight vibration, and the turned into an acute pins-and-needles discomfort as it moved upwards to his wrist and ankles, and then on to his knees and elbows until he could no longer feel his long human limbs. His point of view lowered, centering closer to the ground, and his vision and hearing sharpened. He felt the brush of thin fabric as his pants and shirt tugged back against his body as they slipped off. Fur emerged around his body, causing his thin trousers to quickly slip down to the blanket in a heap, as he wiggled out backward from the neck of the short-sleeved shirt. Taking another deep breath, he felt the refreshing coastal wind against his silky black fur. Stretching his back first, he then flexed his left leg all the way back, shaking his rear paw, then repeated the same for his right leg. 

    Doing a feline wiggle from the tip of his moist nose to the end of his soft black tail, Levi then padded his way through the underbrush just as the sun was setting over the sparkling Adriatic Sea. He could hear a couple of field mice underground, scurrying away from his presence, and even a snake of some kind, but ignored all that. His goal was to reach the scene of Madeline's kidnapping, assess the security, and then try to make it into the main house. 

    As the detached workshop came into view, he saw there were still a couple of officers and a forensics agent working methodically in the area of what was the makeshift dollhouse. Good. As he trotted silently into the warehouse, keeping to the shadows, his sensitive nose revealed that the authorities were working from the entrance to the farthest wall. He detected their scent all over the direction of the fake walls of the dollhouse and that far corner of the building, but they had yet to finish the opposite corner. Ambling out of the building, he spotted crime-scene tape extending to the main house, but only one of the officers’ scents was present, and not very prominent past the front door, which meant they hadn’t worked that part of the area yet. Perfect.

    Levi quietly slinked past the front door and through the foyer to the living room. His sensitive nose immediately picked up Geon Woo and his parents’ thick scent over the furnishings, but no sign of Madeline or anyone else. The kitchen also turned up empty containing nothing out of place or surprising. He scurried upstairs, methodically proceeding through all four bedrooms. He identified Geon Woo’s room first, but there was no scent of Madeline present in it, or anyone else’s. He next discovered the room that Soo-Jin must have occupied, but there were only fleeting scents of Geon Woo and his parents in there. He had hoped to find signs of abuse, or even sexual activity, but found nothing incriminating.  

    In the parent’s master bedroom he picked up Madeline’s perfume and her unique fruit-blossom scent. They changed her on the bed, but there was no trace of anything but her scent. No strands of hair or any physical evidence. They were careful. In the walk-in closet, Levi found a handful of lolita dresses carefully placed on padded hangers, enclosed in clear plastic dry cleaning bags. They smelled like clean clothes, no scents of victims to be found. They would take the dresses, for sure, but find nothing on those either.

    The fourth bedroom was a study, with an outdated desktop computer set on an antique desk. Levi lept to the top of the desk effortlessly, pressing the power button down with the knuckles of his right paw. As the computer booted up, he lifted his left paw and proceeded to lick it, grooming behind his ears as he contemplated the current situation. He had smelled enough dried blood in the workshop to know the local authorities could easily tie Geon Woo to murder, but he needed to also tie the parents in as well. 

    After a couple of minutes spent waiting, the computer booted up to the desktop screen. 

    Not even a log-in screen? Levi thought. Maybe they aren’t as careful as I thought.

    Silky-soft cat paws nudged the mouse cursor to the browser icon, and the irony was not lost to him. Holding the mouse still with his right paw, he tapped at it with his left, opening the browser and then expertly maneuvered to the history and cache. Of course, he could have switched back to human form and done it a lot quicker, but the chance of being caught naked in a murderer’s home was much too risky. The history was boring, the emails were boring, although he did find a delivery notice for the blue diamond confirming it was from a company that turned ashes into gemstones. But that still didn’t tie the parents to the murders. The whole family had their stink all over the computer desk, but not recently. 

    There had to be something here. Geon Woo was all about collecting girls dressed as dolls, and they had to be pristine and unmolested. Well, until he killed them anyway. He kept the diamond necklaces as a memento of what they became, so there had to be something he kept from before the girls were murdered - to preserve his dolls in their mint condition state. It wasn’t the dresses. Those were likely incinerated outside in the burn barrel.

    Levi combed through the hard drive. There was nothing incriminating. Was it on Geon Woo’s phone perhaps? He had no way of knowing.

    Levi ignored the computer and began sniffing around the desk. He could smell the perfume the mother had on her wrists, smeared on the edge of the desk as she typed. And the keys smelled like a combination of the three of them. But there was something else… something faint to the left of the keyboard. Touching his whiskers cautiously to the surface, his wet black nose detected leather and a chemical fixative of some sort.

    A photo album?

    Sniffing the perimeter of the leather scent, Levi was able to make a mental picture of what size the book was likely to be. Then, he checked the air to find a wisp of matching leather. Following the trail led him to one of the bookcases that lined the walls. Deftly jumping upon the fourth shelf, Levi gently sniffed around until he found the musky scent that matched the one at the desk. The album was a less dusty than the books around it, and unlike the sweet smell of words on paper, the distinct photo fixative was strong. Pawing the spine, Levi pulled the photo album down letting it fall to the floor. 

    Landing softly on his feet next to the opened photo album, the page it happened to open to wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Pictures of what he assumed was a young Geon Woo, taken at various moments of accomplishment in his life. Levi flipped to the next page. There were primary school awards accepted with teachers, then sports awards taken with his peers. Page after page of moments that would make parents proud.

    And then...

    There were pages of them

    Unconscious girls, all dressed up like china dolls. More than he had originally suspected taking into account the handful of necklaces he found on the ship. A few pages in, each girl’s picture was accompanied by a photo of their blue diamond necklace. 

    On the very last page of pictures was Madeline’s photo. 

    The sight of her being propped up in the antique chair knotted his stomach. He had been on site well before the police arrived at his call, but the fact that she was at the whims of this maniac both sickened and infuriated him. And all the other girls… the ones that didn’t get saved…

    He took a closer look at Madeline’s picture and realized all the photos of the dolled-up girls were in the same chair - the one in the mock dollhouse. And in just about every case, the victims were propped up by hands. Levi scanned the pictures. He was able to identify the unique wedding bands of Geon Woo’s parents. They were never in the same photo together, but it was the evidence he was looking for, and their scent was strong on the album, so their prints should be all over it too.

    Carefully, he pushed it to the center of the room and left it wide open to the page Madeline and the three previous girls were on, certain the authorities would find it when they searched the house. Seeing as his job was done, he swiftly exited the main house and sprinted back to the rental car just as the last bit of light was swallowed up by the night. 

    He sat a few moments in silence; listening to sound of the tiny night creatures foraging and hunting, inhaling the salty air and detecting the scents of the seabirds gliding through it, and feeling the comfort of the breeze against his bare skin. To be perfectly honest, he had grown to hate clothing since ever since he experienced the freedom of being a cat. Nothing felt as comfortable as being naked. 

    Sighing, he knew it was time to go back.

    Shifting back into human form felt a lot like stretching. Only at the apex of the stretch, his limbs continued expanding on their own. As his feline body elongated, the black fur was seemingly pulled back into the smooth almond of flawless skin. Within a few seconds, the cat was gone, and Levi sat casually, naked on the blanket he had laid out on the ground. Wiggling his toes a little bit, he sat back and stared at the sky for a few minutes before getting dressed. 

    It really didn’t matter what form he was in, naked just felt better. 

    Slipping his long, lean legs back into his pants, he caught the echo of what sounded like a metal barrel being dragged around in the workshop. Confident that other than a handful of small nocturnal creatures, there was no one within sight or earshot of him, he stood, pulling his trousers up to his waist and carefully zipping the front. Grabbing his shirt from the blanket, he slipped his arms through and shook out his shoulder-length black hair. It didn’t take him long to gather up the blanket, car keys, his other belonging, and get comfortable in the front seat of the rental. Tossing his shoes in the passenger's side, he slipped the key into the ignition and the vehicle roared to life. 

    Looking back at the house, he watched in the distance as a large utility light sparked to life near the house. They were likely starting their investigation in the main house soon. It wouldn’t be long now.

    He rolled out of the dirt road slowly, not bothering with headlights until he was close to the highway. 

     

     

    ------------------------------------------------------


    “Hey.”

    Madeline could feel the bed shaking annoyingly. Dismissing the thought that it could be an earthquake, she squeezed her eyes tightly, hoping Levi would stop so she could go back to her nap. 

    “You can sleep through damn near anything, can’t you?” Levi asked, pulling the covers off of her since she wasn’t budging. 

    She flailed her arms, trying to grab the comforter back from him, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen in this lifetime.

    “Get up, I need to debrief you, and we need to get something to eat,” he said. “Unless you feel like waiting until I come around to the other side of the bed and pick you up. 

    “I’m getting up,” she mumbled, burying her face temporarily in the pillow.

    “You know it’s like eleven o’clock, right?” he said with a teasing smile, emerald eyes playfully twinkling.

    In a panic, Madeline’s eyes darted to the clock radio. It was only 9:15 p.m.

    She felt the air get knocked out of her temper as the unpleasant sensation of hunger became the sudden focus. Sitting up slowly, she unwrapped the towel from her hair, letting down a cascade of unruly curls. “So tell me what happened.”

    Levi went over the details of what he found and how he staged it in the villa. He also went over with her what the police were likely to confiscate, and the process of the charges.

    “I hope they get life,” Madeline said sadly, thinking of the multiple pictures of all the poor girls they had killed. So many more than she had expected. 

    “They should,” Levi reassured. “I have sources to check so I will be keeping an eye on how all this turns out.”

    “So what happens to our contract?”

    “Situations like this don’t happen very often, but we’re protected from repercussions. There were significant details withheld from us, and the client misrepresented themselves and their cause. When we get back home, I’ll contact Syriem and find out what the hell they were thinking, and we’ll see where it goes from there. They wouldn’t dare take action against us, so don’t worry about that at all.”

    Madeline nodded, accepting his reasoning and rose from the bed to go sort herself out in the bathroom mirror. She didn’t bother straightening out her hair but just wanted to freshen up her look so it wouldn’t be obvious that she’d just woken up. Slipping her sandals on, she went with Levi down the elevator to the modestly-sized pizzeria that was adjacent to the hotel’s traditional restaurant. As they sat and ate, they discussed the plan for getting back home. They weren’t due to fly out of Spain for another three days, but Levi should be able to bump the flight up as long there was room for them, one of the perks of traveling international business class. He’d arrange for two tickets out of Resnik heading to Barcelona tomorrow and then arrange the flight back to the U.S.

    They both slept comfortably that night in separate beds, and despite the pace of the previous days, where refreshed the next morning. Checking out from the coastal Croatian hotel was easy, with Levi putting in his brown contact lenses in the car before driving out to the airport and booking their flight. Once in Spain, Levi was able to rebook them on an earlier flight without any issues. After a relaxing lunch at a lounge in the concourse, they boarded the long flight back to Seattle. 

    More than ten hours later, they were finally back at Levi’s apartment, and Madeline was more thankful to see her own bed than she realized she would be.

    The first thing she did was take a nice, long hot bath and change into an oversized t-shirt and her comfy sleep shorts. After drying her hair and brushing her teeth, she unloaded the suitcase that had made it to the loft ahead of them, and then journeyed out of her room to find Levi. He was sitting at his desk in the room above his bedroom, likewise changed into a pair of black baggy pajama pants and a short-sleeved white henley-style t-shirt.

    He motioned for her to come in.

    “I’m going to give Syriem a call,” he began as she took a seat on the opposite side of the desk. “And you’ll get to see how this will get sorted out.”

    As he dialed his broker’s number, his slender index finger pressed the ‘speaker’ button on his cell phone, so Madeline could now hear the ringing. 

    “Levi,” the electronically altered voice acknowledged.

    “I’m sure you’re aware of the Hyun situation,” Levi said, reigning in his irritation. “I don’t take kindly to information being withheld. Do you remember how anxious you were about Madeline taking up my line of work? Well, the misrepresentation almost got her killed.”

    “That was an unforeseen circumstance,” Syriem stated blankly. “The bottom line was that the property did not belong to the Hyuns. It was obtained illegally, and they wanted it back.”

    “Your bottom line is nothing but stripped down facts. You can’t operate your business without providing accurate details. Details make or break jobs,” Levi stated, holding steadfast. “A broker is only as good as the contractors they can provide, and any more of this type of shit and I’ll be looking for another broker.”

    “Understood. Would you care to hear the outcome of the contract?” Syriem asked, void of any emotional reaction to Levi’s threat.

    “Amuse me.”

    “I have been in contact with the client who has informed me that Geon Woo and his parents have been formally charged and that the necklace will be returned to the client upon conclusion of the case. The authorities have also seized the other diamonds and are in the process of tracking down the next of kin for the other victims based on photographic evidence. The client is pleased with the outcome and has received additional financial support from the community. Due compensation has been applied to your account in the amount stated in the contract.”

    The results were favorable, despite the methods taken to get there. 

    “If that will be all, I bid you good-day,” Syriem added.

    “Fine, but remember what I said. You know I don’t make empty threats.”

    “Understood.”

    And then Syriem ended the call. 

    “At least they all got arrested, and there will be no more victims,” Madeline said, though she was still as frustrated as Levi about being misguided by the details they were given.

    “While that is true, this is an example of why I said Syriem is not my friend. And although you may do business with someone for an extended period of time, it doesn’t mean you can trust them. Trust is something only earned by actions, not words, and there are different levels of trust. For instance, I trust Syriem to know I will always be paid for a completed contract, but not enough to believe everything I’m told is true. And on this job, I trusted you to do what was necessary, and you did.”

    “And I trusted you to come find me, and you did,” Madeline interrupted.

    “Which is expands our trust in each other, but doesn’t mean I trust you completely, and I don’t expect you’d to be foolish enough to trust me completely either. It was a building block, and if fate decides, there will be more.”

    Nodding in agreement, Madeline rolled back the office chair and rose to her feet. As Levi focused on his laptop, reading something or another, she excused herself and took the stairs down from his office and ended up back in her room. Levi had installed a flat screen TV on her bedroom wall, and she grabbed its remote from the nightstand as she crawled into bed. As frightening as it had turned out in the end, the mission was still exciting. She hoped she’d made a good impression and would be asked to accompany Levi again if the situation presented itself. 

    Switching on the television, Madeline curled up and started to watch a sci-fi movie she had seen before her world caved in. Watching the heroes with alien-like powers felt different to her since she’d become aware of the real world around her. After struggling to stay awake a half an hour into the film, Madeline switched it off and propped her head comfortably against the soft pillow, clutching her black opal as she drifted off into a blissful sleep.
     

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